by Mary Rupert
Firefighters turned out in large numbers for a Unified Government Commission special session Thursday that took aim at trading shifts and other items.
They did not get to speak at the meeting, and that has ruffled some feathers.
Bob Wing, business manager for the International Association of Firefighters, Local 64, said today that a commissioner had requested that they be allowed to speak, and they were expecting to have that opportunity, but then they were told that they couldn’t speak.
“I rearranged my schedule to this (out-of-town) conference to attend that meeting last night,” Wing said. “A lot of taxpayers were there who didn’t get their say last night.”
Wing said he views the fire study as a budget-cutting document, aimed at cutting 5 percent of the costs from the Fire Department.
Fire study consultants presented a plan to the commissioners at the 5 p.m. special session Thursday that addressed several issues, including firefighters trading shifts.
Mayor Mark Holland told the commission that the trends in public safety spending in Kansas City, Kan., were unsustainable. Public safety takes up 60 percent of the UG’s budget, he said. Spending trends were averaging about 40 percent in public safety, he added.
“These aren’t issues that you take lightly,” Mayor Holland said. He said he was trying to be fiscally responsible while maintaining the safety of employees and the community. He said the fire study is not about individuals, but about systems.
Fire station locations
The fire study stated that fire stations were not always in the correct location, he said, that some of them were located before automobiles were prevalent, and some of them were inherited township fire stations.
The study recommends more fire stations for the increasing population in the Piper area, and less stations for the eastern side of Kansas City, Kan. For example, a station in the Fairfax area would close, and the consultants have stated there should be enough coverage nearby for it.
The fire study recommends five stations would consolidate on the east side of Kansas City, Kan., and two new stations would be built on the west side. The population growth is on the west side.
Mayor Holland also said Kansas City, Kan., had significantly more Fire Department employees than did similar sized cities in Olathe, Kan., and Independence, Mo., and KCK was spending more money per resident than those two cities.
Wing said the firefighters have put a plan on the table that would take care of all of the needs in the community, including more fire stations in Piper, and leaving coverage in the eastern part of the city the way it is. The firefighters’ proposal would add no additional fire companies, he added.
“Their objective was to cut the budget,” he said about the consultants’ study, “not for a service document. Our was for service.”
Wing added the firefighters’ proposal adds service in the Piper area and leaves it the same on the eastern part of Kansas City, Kan., with the same cost, not an additional cost. The consultants’ plan would cut costs, he added.
Trading shifts is common, Mayor Holland said. However, a legislative audit found that about a third of the trades last year were not traded back, he said. The audit found $250,000 paid in overtime to firefighters who did not do that work, he said. Some other cities require employees to trade back when they exchange shifts, he added. He also said the payouts at the end of the year were unfair and unsustainable.
He also said retirement payouts were affected by this practice, and represented a significant burden the UG bears, with a million dollars paid to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement fund in penalties. In 2015, about 96 UG employees retired, with the UG paying $3.7 million to retire 26 firefighters; and the UG paying $3.4 million to retire the remaining 70 UG employees.
At the meeting, Commissioner Ann Murguia pointed out that firefighters work more hours per week than most workers. According to the mayor, they average around 53.5 hours a week as compared to the regular 40-hour week. They work weekends and holidays. Commissioner Murguia said trading shifts allows them to participate more in family activities.
Also she said that the types of fire calls Olathe and Independence have versus the Kansas City, Kan., population are different. Consultants said more than a dozen cities were compared to Kansas City, Kan., for this study.
Commissioner Murguia also said she would like to hear from Local 64 representatives and fire personnel at the meeting.
Fire Chief John P. Jones said at the meeting that he considers trading time to be budget-neutral, and there wasn’t really a correlation between trading time and end-of-the-year payouts. Trading time allows for flexibility, with the Fire Department’s 365-day, 24-hour schedule, he said.
Chief Jones said there was a direct correlation between overtime and carrying vacancies in the department.
Wing said today he considered shift-changing as a nonissue. The firefighters here have a longstanding agreement that he estimated at seven decades old on the topic. Wing believes it is a cost-neutral issue.
“Trading time allows for different things to happen for firefighters in their family lives,” Wing said. Firefighters are not complaining about the longer work week, and he said that laws and contracts across the country also have recognized that people have their own lives to live. Trading shifts gives flexibility to allow employees to do other things they need to do in their lives, he said.
Cutting Fire Department costs
Wing said that new sales tax money is expected to come into the Unified Government in 2017 from the Village West area. He said there are sales taxes targeted for public safety, fire and EMS that they don’t have right now.
“Why cut the Fire Department when you are actually going to get more dollars next year out of sales tax money?” Wing asked. Residents already voted for a sales tax several years ago that would specifically go to public safety, he added.
Wing said it may be the mayor’s political opinion that the community can’t sustain the level of spending, but the community has already voted at the polls that they want spending to go to public safety services. They also have responded with a high degree of satisfaction in the Fire Department in a recent community survey, Wing said.
“What operates today was good enough for Mayor Reardon, what operates today was put in place by Mayor Marinovich, but today it’s not good enough for Mayor Holland,” Wing remarked.
Mayor Holland, however, called for the UG Commission to implement the fire study “to right-size our department – without layoffs – and bring it in line with peer cities. We can do this through attrition,” he stated. “The UG also needs to require firefighters to work their shifts back, rather than pay for them. Money saved by this move could be invested in capital improvements recommended by FACETS (the name of the fire study).”
More topics on the issue of the fire study and future plans for the Fire Department were discussed at the April 28 special session of the UG Commission. To view a video of that meeting, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHi9MVIBMlI.